The 49ers come to Champaign with a 3-1 record, with a win over Duke and a loss to Georgia Southern. The Niners are a confident group and will look to spoil the Illini in Champaign. They have already a P5 win in the books and will bring the same swagger to Memorial Stadium.
Charlotte Offense vs. Illinois Defense
Unsurprisingly, Illinois has the worst defense in the B1G, good for 112th in the nation. The Illini allow 448 yards per game and 6.19 yards per play, with 69% of the yards coming in through the air. The Charlotte offense averages 443 yards a game and 6.24 yards per play. At this point in the season, all these players are capable, looking at the numbers, the Charlotte Offense and the Illinois Defense are evenly matched. Knowing Illinois’ flaws over the air (even if they seem cleaned up), the 49ers game plan is simple, pass the ball. Illinois is dead last in long passing plays over 10 yards, with 63 passes and long passing plays over 20 yards with 25 passes.
The Charlotte passing attack is led by senior captain, QB Chris Reynolds. Reynolds began his time as a Niner as a walk-on and is now the leading passing record holder at Charlotte. Reynolds is a good, confident QB and could make the Illini secondary look sloppy. Reynolds has also improved his running game this year, already notching 100 more yards than 2020 and 3 TDs. Reynolds is clearly the main offensive weapon and is throwing to two very competent wideouts in Miles College transfer Grant DuBose and senior Victor Tucker. Reynolds is flanked by a pair of backs, Calvin Camp and Shadrick Byrd. Camp and Byrd share the same amount of touches and have similar production. In the last game, DuBose, Tucker, and Camp both notched over 100 yards, coming into Champaign with momentum.
Overall, Charlotte has a confident QB and great position players. If the Illinois defense has truly improved and, as Ryan Walters and Bret Bielema say, is more confident in their roles, the Niners could be held at bay. BUT what is concerning, Charlotte knows how to finish a football game. If they have the ball at the end of the game in a one-score game, it might be concerning. Like it was in the last two games, the Illinois defense will create turnovers and keep the Illini in the game. What really matters is can the Illini score a touchdown on offense.
Charlotte Defense vs. Illinois Offense
Note: I am starting this section as I watch Bielema’s press conference from 9/27. Wow, this staff loves Josh McCray. The kid is Bielema’s first recruit. This is big for the program.
We all know the state of the Illinois offense. Illinois hasn't scored in the first quarter, BP has 0 touchdowns in 3 games, and the line has been incredibly inconsistent. Unfortunately, if you look back to last year, the passing game just has not been there, Josh Imatorbhebhe had similar stats in 2020 as Isaiah Williams has this year. The sole positive this year has been the emergence of true-freshman Josh McCray. Overall, the Illini have averaged 344.4 yards on the ground, for 4.82 yards a play. Charlotte is giving up 430 yards and 6.61 yards a play. Most of the yards gained against Charlotte are on the ground. This is a good thing. On paper, the Illinois offense has a chance to build confidence against a weaker defense than what Illinois has been up against the last 4 weeks.
Through 4 games this year, Charlotte has 1 interception, 4 fumbles gained, 22 TFL’s and 8 sacks. Charlotte started strong against Duke and FCS Gardner-Webb, but the production has fallen significantly since (3 fumbles, 15 TFL’s and 5 sacks in the first 2 games). For Charlotte to do anything, they will have to pack the box and hope they are not at the receiving end of one of McCray’s stiff arms. Charlotte returns two starting linebackers (Tyler Murray, Luke Martin), two defensive backs (S Antone Williams, CB Lance McMillan) and DT Bryan Wallace. In addition, DE Markees Watts, who started all 13 games in 2019 but was hampered by injury in 2020, returns. Murray, Watts, and Martin lead the Niners in tackling, as expected. Murray is the man to watch on defense, as he also has 4 QB hurries and 2 forced fumbles.
Illinois finally gets a bit of breathing room on offense. McCray gets to carry over a dominant rushing performance into a defense that allows opponents to run the ball. Even if Chase Brown is back, McCray can and will do damage. The pass is still questionable. Will Bielema and Co. allow Peters to gain back confidence or will they switch to Art if the offense looks uninspired once again?
Illinois has a chance to right its chains. The schedule only gets harder from here. The high-powered Charlotte offense can win shootout games, even at the P5 level. The Niner defense, however, allows opponents to move the ball effectively. Illinois matches up well on defense, especially with Keith Randolph back and Jake Hansen and Devon Witherspoon hopefully back next week. Illinois can regain confidence in its offense, but a lot lies on QB play and the passing game opening up. Charlotte will keep giving Illinois chances to make something happen, it is up to Illinois to grab the reins.